I’ve spoken at length in the past about parents blaming their child’s sleep issues on “regressions.” Through my extensive experience, I have learned that there are only two “real” regressions. One at four months, and another one around 10-12 months. Outside of those two regressions, long term issues with a child’s sleep are almost always because they are not yet properly sleep trained. (Meaning they have not yet learned the skill of falling asleep on their own for naps and bedtime. Thus they cannot put themselves back to sleep without help when they wake up overnight.) The 2 year-old sleep regression is a different beast entirely.
After the 10-12 month regression, many families will experience a sudden shift in their children’s behavior around sleep. This shift usually occurs around the 2 year mark. The regressions at 4 and 10-12 months seem to be based on some sort of developmental leap that disrupts the child from being able to sleep soundly. (Along with an increased awareness of their own desires.) However, the sleep disruption that can occur around the two year mark seems to be solely behavior based.
Your Child Can Choose
Sleep issues around the 2 year (and older) mark mainly revolve around your child’s seemingly sudden awareness that they can choose. And, that they can use their words and behaviors to influence whatever situation they are in as well as their caretaker’s. They are very good at keeping themselves awake. MOST toddlers go through periods of time where (if they are still napping) they can will themselves to remain awake for 1-2 hours before falling asleep at bedtime. In the best of circumstances, your toddler will just roll around, sing, practice the alphabet, etc, before falling asleep for bedtime. In less positive circumstances, kids will simply use whatever tools at their disposal to fight falling asleep. Simply put, they’d prefer to be up with you and the world than go to sleep.
Hello Sass, Nice to Meet You
Many toddlers user their newfound control of language to fight sleep by being sassy. This can seem funny at first, or even surprising and endearing. However, most parents quickly find the sassiness to be downright infuriating. Your child’s words can be extremely triggering for you, and guess what? They pick up on that fury instantly. Toddlers quite literally crave attention. And while they prefer positive attention, most will take negative attention as well. A sassy child can quickly turn the parent/child dynamic on its head by causing a “battle of the wills” scenario to replay over and over again at each nap and bedtime.
Sassiness-aside, nap striking is also a common hallmark of this age. As mentioned before, your two-year-old has realized that they can choose not to sleep for their nap. Does this mean it’s time to drop their nap and institute a “quiet time” instead? Not quite yet. While some kids do start to drop their naps around 2.5 years old, for many others, this hallmark age is just a temporary phase. Nap time may need to move a bit later (try 30 minutes), but other than that, consistency here is key.
“But I Need Just One More Thing”
Finally, children will often ask for “one more thing” before being able to go to sleep. These requests quickly become requirements. Before you know it, your child will “require” a long list of things in order to be able to fall asleep. And guess what? That list may grow each night! I’ve known of families who need hallway lights left on. Doors left open “just so.” A certain, different stuffed animal each night. (Usually one that can rarely be found where it’s supposed to be!) And the parents, desperate for their child to sleep, will engage with every desire.
How To Manage the 2 Year “Regression”
Thankfully the solution to all of these issues is easy (-ier said than done).
Step one: Consistently implementing a regimented and short bedtime (or nap time) routine.
Step two: Not engaging with additional requests.
That is all that’s needed to address these issues. If your child needs to be in bed at 7 pm, create an extremely brief bedtime routine. If possible, try to change your child in pajamas as early as possible in the afternoon. (Perhaps before dinner, and add a t-shirt on top that you can remove for easy clean up.) Try to completely separate bath from bedtime. This way, once it’s time for bed, your child can brush their teeth and go straight to sleep. I don’t recommend books as part of a bedtime routine. This can cause children to be very upset when book time is over, or opens the door to more requests. If your child consistently asks for something (like water) to delay bedtime, remember to offer water before you brush teeth. Essentially, you want to make the bedtime routine to consist of as few steps as possible. And once your child is in bed, do not return unless it’s an emergency, they are unsafe, or ill. The fewer chances your child has to deviate from the routine, the more smoothly it will go.
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